Legends of Mount Gabriel: The Bottomless Lake

It’s the most visible and significant feature on the West Cork landscape, so of course there are lots of legends about Mount Gabriel. A surprising number of stories revolve around a tiny pool near the top of the mountain, labelled on the historic OS maps as Poulanenine. The most likely etymology for this is Poul an Oigheann – the Pool of the Cauldron (oigheann also means oven, but cauldron seems a more likely translation).

Reading these stories in Dúchas* and finding the pool on the maps, I knew that we had to see it for ourselves. Fortunately, Mount Gabriel (looming over Schull, above) is within our 5k limit and luckily necessitates no human interaction (as a people person, that’s a phrase I never thought I would write) so we set off yesterday to find it. Yes, your intrepid bloggers stop at nothing to bring you the best of West Cork arts and culture! 

Having made a couple of wrong decisions as to the best way to get there, at one point we found ourselves edging backwards over a slippery cliff, clinging to bits of heather and wondering just how foolish we would look when the Search and Rescue Team had to be called out to save a couple of septuagenarians who claimed to be looking for a fairy tale location.

But we made it – and there it was, a tiny remnant of the Ice Age, the Cauldron Pool! It’s referred to as a lake in the stories and there are several versions of how it was made. Here’s an admirably succinct one: 

There is a little lake on the top of Mount Gabriel called Poll an Oighin. There is a saying that Fionn Mac Cumhail took a handful of rock and threw it out into the Atlantic Ocean where it is now as the Fastnet Rock or Carraig Aonair – leaving the hole of Poll an Oighin. Another saying is that if a stick was thrown into Poll an Oighin it would come out in Schull harbour.

The fact that there is an underground route from the lake to Schull Harbour is born out by this story too:

But not all versions assign the origin of the lake to Finn McCool. 

Long ago the devil was flying over Mount Gabriel and he was flying so low that he hit his wing against a rock. He got so cross that he took a bite out of the rock. When he had gone eight or nine miles from Mount Gabriel, he left the rock fall into the sea. The rock was so large that a part of it remained over the water and it is on that rock the lighthouse is built on now and it is known as the Fastnet Rock. There is a large lake where he took the bite and the water in that lake is of a black colour.

The black water

However, the most charming, and longest story belongs to an entry from Macroom, far away from Mount Gabriel. The school girl, Julia Creedon, got it from Dan O’Sullivan, also of Macroom, although undoubtedly Dan knew the story from his youth so must have been from the area around Schull. I am reproducing it in full, and readers will recognise many elements familiar to such legends everywhere. One of the most striking aspects of this story is its use of familiar names and places to fix the story in this exact locality.

Near the village of Schull, is Mount Gabriel whose peak rises 1,000 feet above sea level. The unspoiled charm of the magnificent view from its summit is unsurpassable.

The Meenvane road leads you out of the village and on to the gap road; which runs between two high cliffs on the east side of the mountain known as “The Gap of Mount Gabriel”, From here you have a view of nature’s splendour: a number of Carberys Hundred Isles scattered over the great expanse of the Atlantic which amply repays you for the stiff climb. It has been compared to a post card album, you study, as it were, one lovely post card, on turning a leaf you get an entirely different, yet, equally beautiful view to gaze upon, but here you simply turn your head.

Facing south you see on the Coosheen hill the ruins of the old white castle once the seat of the O’Mahoneys. Turning north the Hungry Hill can be seen in the distance. The beautiful country of the valley reflecting every mood of nature runs down to Dunbeacon Castle, once the home of Chieftain O’Sullivan, whose ruins now stands at the edge of Dunmanus Bay, beneath the shadow of Mount Gabriel. Sir H. De La Béche** says in his History of Cork “It was as striking of its kind as any he had seen in Switzerland.”

Chieftain’s Daughter

Following the road and keeping to the left, you find a patch on the north side of the mountain which leads you to the bottomless lake, situated almost on the top of the mountain. There are many beautiful traditions of this picturesque locality, still amongst the older peasants of the district, one of which is: –

“The Legend of the Bottomless Lake” is as follows: Chieftain O’ Sullivan, of Dunbeacon Castle, had one child, a daughter, Rosaleen. So beautiful and fair was she that the poets described her as “The Rose of the Valley”. She had a lover, one, Owen O’Mahoney, of the White Castle. When O’Sullivan heard of his daughter’s friendship with O’Mahoney he was very angry as Owen could never hope for more than a younger son’s share. Notwithstanding this, the young lovers were ideally happy.

What’s left of Dunbeacon Castle

One evening as Rosaleen returned home after a walk with her lover, she was brought into the presence of her father’s guest, Chieftain O’Driscoll of the Three Head Castle. He was known to Rosaleen, who thoroughly disliked him, as an elderly bachelor, who drank a lot of rich wines, boasted a lot of his castles, of the men he had killed, and the women who loved him. When Rosaleen heard he had come that day, to ask her in marriage, and that her father gave his consent, she was horrified. Outwardly calm, she explained to her father and O’Driscoll that she loved Owen O’Mahoney, and would marry no other. Her love for Owen was far dearer to her than her life. Her father listened not to her pleading; he settled the day for her wedding to O’Driscoll giving “The Rose of the Valley” just one week to get used to the idea and to forget Owen O’Mahoney.

During that week her father saw to it that she was kept a prisoner in his castle. But love finds a way. The beautiful Rosaleen got a letter sent to her lover telling him of her plight.

Three Castle Head

The Escape

All the notable chieftains for miles round were invited to Dunbeacon Castle. There was great feasting and merry-making on the day preceding the date fixed for the wedding.

The night before the wedding when all were merry and gay Rosaleen received that for which she had being praying, a letter from Owen. Following his instructions she made her escape from the castle, and was met by her lover. Helping her on to his horse, he sprang up behind her, and faced for his father’s castle in Coosheen.

Fearing Rosaleen’s escape would be discovered, they left the road and took the path over the mountains. It was a bright moonlight night. Looking back they saw no trace of pursuit.

Rosaleen saw a little spring well, she dismounted and knelt and drank from the spring. Her face reflected in the water, was so beautiful that the “Good People” in the well, desired to get her for themselves. Rosaleen jumped to her feet when she saw the water, rising round her. She ran towards her lover the water ran after her until a small lake was formed.

Owen seeing her plight, lifted her on to his horse and springing behind her, once more he made his way down the other side of the mountain. The “Good People” seeing they were beaten in their attempt to capture the beautiful “Rose of the Valley” got very angry, and reversed the flow of the spring. Down, down, down went the bottom of the lake until its waters flowed into Schull Harbour.

Some hours after O’Driscoll went in pursuit of his bride and muddled with drink, drove his horse over the mountain. Taking the sheet of water for a flat rock in the moonlight, he drove straight into it and disappeared under the surface of the lake. His men following behind reigned up and waited for their chieftain to re-appear Seeing no trace of him, they rode back with all haste to acquaint O’Sullivan with news of the disaster that had overtaken O’Driscoll. Chieftain O’Sullivan, believing that his daughter had met with the same fate as O’Driscoll, was filled with remorse. He tore his hair in grief for his beautiful lost daughter.

White Castle (Ardintenant Castle) from the sea, Mount Gabriel behind

Reconciliation

Great was his joy when he heard that she was safe and well married to Owen O’Mahoney and dwelling at the White Castle.

He rode immediately to Coosheen and asked Owen’s forgiveness. He promised him Dunbeacon Castle and all his estate if only he would bring her back “The Rose of the Valley”.

I can’t help wondering about Julia Creedon. Although she may have faithfully reproduced the essence of the story she heard from Dan O’Sullivan, her own abilities are very evident in this story, as is her immersion in reading other stories in this genre. Did she become a seanachaí (a story teller), or a teacher or a writer? She has two other stories in the Schools Collection as well, including a long one about the River Lee, just as precociously written in the same lovely cursive, with headings underlined in red ink. If she were still alive, she would be in her late 90s now.

The story of this bottomless pool has an even older history than the 1930s. In 1780 Philip Luckombe published his A Tour Through Ireland and tells of the same lake when describing a journey from Bantry. Luckombe was one of our earliest plagiarists – he took his accounts almost verbatim from even earlier books and there is no evidence that he was ever even in Ireland. From our point of view this means that the story predates 1780 so it has an impressive pedigree indeed. 

Next time, more about some of the other legends that have accrued to Mount Gabriel.

It’s further than it looks

* Dúchas is the National Folklore Archive and within this is The Schools Collection: “For the duration of the project, [1937-39] more than 50,000 schoolchildren from 5,000 schools in the 26 counties of the Irish Free State were enlisted to collect folklore in their home districts. This included oral history, topographical information, folktales and legends, riddles and proverbs, games and pastimes, trades and crafts. The children recorded this material from their parents, grandparents, and neighbours.” The Collection is online and is searchable at https://www.duchas.ie/en/cbes. I have done a little minor editing to the entries above for consistency in punctuation and spelling.

**This is a reference to Sir Henry De la Beche, founder of the Geological Survey of Great Britain and Ireland.

Fisher’s Folklore (Saints and Soupers Part 8)

Over the course of a marathon seven posts, I wrote about the Rev William Allen Fisher, revered by his kin and congregation as the energetic and saintly saviour of hundreds of famished souls during the Great Hunger, and reviled by his Catholic clerical counterparts as one of the worst examples of a Protestant Clergyman who bought conversions with food and employment. Balanced precariously on the fence of fairness, I concluded that he was both a Saint and a Souper, conflating, as he did, the imperative to feed the body with his mission to save souls.

Paul Farmiloe’s lovely sketch of Fisher’s church, Teampall na mBocht in Toormore

It is difficult to overstate, from this remove, how normal his kind of evangelical Protestantism was for the time in which he lived and worked. Ultimately, though, he was on the losing end of history. Not only did the Protestant Crusade, of which he was an enthusiastic proponent, fail to convert broad masses of ‘Papists’ but the burgeoning social and economic power of the Catholic Church ensured that those individuals who had converted to the Church of Ireland felt the full might of episcopal condemnation. Indeed, to be accused of being a Souper remains to this day one of the worst insults that can be said to an Irish person. 

In this church-dominated narrative, which all of us were fed in school in the 50s and 60s (betraying my age there – and I am in that blurry photo above), there was no room for allowing that a conversion to the Church of Ireland could possibly be through genuine conviction or a change of heart. No, such conversions – or perversions as they were labelled at the time – came as a result of taking advantage of people driven mad with hunger. Knowing as we did that Catholicism was the one true faith, how could we accept that anyone in their right mind could abandon it? It’s always been interesting to me, by the way, that at the same time as we were taught to excoriate those who converted away from their own faith, we were happily offering up our pennies to fill the collection boxes that every school had for Ireland’s extensive Missions Programs, in which Irish priests and nuns (including members of my own family) spread out across the world with the intent of wresting souls away from other religions. 

In the second half of the 1930s the Folklore Commission collected stories and local traditions from over 50,000 schoolchildren in Ireland (like the boys in the 1930s classroom above) – now all available online. I was curious whether stories of the Rev Fisher had persisted in local memory and I turned to this collection to look, specifically to the schools in the vicinity of Toormore. And yes – here it all was, occasionally in remarkable specificity, still very much alive ninety years after the events had taken place. 

Mary O’Sullivan from Toormore National School contributed this detailed piece:

The only landlord that any of the old people around here heard tell of were Mr Baylie and Mr Fisher. Although a Protestant, he was a very good man, and all his tenants were catholics, in fact the Catholic curate of the parish was living in a cottage on his lands – where Mr Hogan now resides. All his tenants were living in peace and comfort until he was forced to sell all his property to the church body, one of whose agents was a minister named Mr Fisher.

The first act that he did was to issue notices that any catholic that did not pay the running half gale within a month would be evicted. All the catholics paid, and the next notice issued intimated that any catholic that did not go to church on the following Sunday would be evicted.

Some of the catholics remained steadfast, but as Fisher had the law in his own hands he had no trouble in evicting all those who he knew had the best of the lands. Those farms he divided into smaller lots, and gave to those whom he got to go to church.

There were two catholic schools in Toormore at that time, one for boys and the other for girls. These were closed so that the children should go to the Altar Protestant school. As the time went on the people got poorer as a result of evictions, and Mr Fisher keeping constantly going amongst the poor people with his charity and prayers he got some of them to go to church to save themselves from starvation. But others endured the greatest privation and kept the faith. Some of these that were evicted were given houses by their old landlord Mr Baylie.

Mr Fisher was supposed to have contracted what was called a slow fever, he was taken from the Altar to Dublin where he died.

I found that last paragraph interesting as I know that Fisher is on the same headstone (below) as his brother in Mount Jerome Cemetery in Dublin but had been unable to find any account until now as to why he would not have been buried in his own churchyard in Goleen. I also need to point out that there is no evidence, or accusations in contemporary accounts, that Fisher evicted tenants or used eviction or a threat of eviction to force conversions. Finally, if anyone knows what a ‘running half gale’ refers to, do let us know as I have been unable to track down the term.

Eileen O’Driscoll, also of Toormore, had this version

The famine years lasted from 1845 to 1847. In this district the people had plenty of corn but they had to export it to England to pay the rent and the potato crop failed. The potato was their principal food for breakfast dinner and supper. Lots of them died of hunger and the fever came all over the county and swept them in hundreds. There were men hired for carrying them to the nearest burial ground which was Kilhangil. They had a special car for that purpose. They called it a bogey car. This man carried nine or ten at the time and dug a big hole and covered them over without any coffin. There was then a relief sent from England to all Parish priests and ministers. In this parish the the minister took hold of the clothes that were sent and some of the poor Catholics died of hunger before they would take anything from the Protestants and others took the clothes and turned Protestant. Mr Fisher was the minister of this parish and also the landlord of Toormore and Gorttyowen. He got the clothes and distributed them to anyone that went to the Protestant church on Sunday. Many Catholics availed of this offer and they were called “soupers or turncoats” The Bishop became angry and he sent a very strict priest to the parish. His name was Fr. Holland. He gave very harsh sermons to the people and we are told that when Mr Fisher got up on Monday mornings he found lots of clothes outside his door. A lot of the people still kept on getting the clothes. Fr. Holland said that he would curse the people that went to the protestant church. He got permission from the bishop to do so. One Sunday as he was speaking in Ballinaskeagh Church a man stood up and said he would go in spite of any Bishop to what churches he like himself. The man died before the end of that day, and his son was killed by his own horse within a week. This frightened the people and it forbade a great number from attending the Protestant Church any more There was one man in Toormore that went to the Protestant Church but he also went to Mass before going there. Mr. Fisher found this out. He met him one day and asked him why he was going to Mass and also going to Church He said he was going to Mass to save his soul and that he was going the Church for to save his body Mr. Fisher bought Mr. Bailey’s property which was Toormore, Gorttyowen, and the Altar. He evicted all the Catholic out of Gorttyowen Toormore but left those that remained souper in their holdings and they are known as Toormore soupers.

There is so much to unpack here. In this version of the story the main inducement to convert is the provision of clothing, rather than food. In Saints and Soupers Part 6 I related that Bishop Delany of Cork had sent the firebrand Fr John James Murphy (AKA The Black Eagle of the North) to sort out the situation and he had succeeded in winning back (or browbeating) many of the converts. There was indeed a Father Timothy Holland in Goleen, but it was several years after the Famine, from 1863 to 1867, and his fierceness and effectiveness has obviously lived on in folk memory and become intertwined with that of Fr Murphy. (Perhaps it was Fr Holland who lined up all the newly married parishioners and married them again in case they hadn’t been ‘properly’ married the first time – see the comments at the end of Part 7.)

The story of the man who asserted his independence of choice only to be struck down, along with his son, is a trope of many Irish stories, often revolving around the wilful destruction of a fairy fort or a holy well. Finally, Kilhangil, nowadays a particularly beautiful and peaceful spot (below), may be familiar to you from the post Mizen Magic 19: Church of the Angels

A pithy entry from Mary Lucey of Ballyrizard relates information from her father, Tim.

Mr Fisher was landlord of Toormore. He was a very bad man and he hated the Catholic Religion. All Catholics who would not become Protestants were evicted. Most of them kept the faith but some turned Protestants for the sake of keeping their land. 

Once again, eviction takes centre stage, this time as the outcome of refusing to turn Protestant. Hating the Catholic Religion is equated with being a very bad man.

Kathleen McCarthy from Lowertown School (that’s Lowertown townland, above) wrote about many aspects of the Famine, including this section on Fisher.

The famine times were from the beginning of eighteen forty seven to the end of eighteen forty eight. The conditions of the Catholics was terrible at that time. Their potatoes were destroyed with the blight, and they had to sell their wheat to pay the rent. In this district three quarters of the people died with hunger.

The English sent yellow meal to the Protestant minister in Toormore to distribute among the people but it was the Protestants who got the most of it. Any Catholic who would turn a Protestant would go to the minister’s house every day and they would get a bowl of soup to drink and meal to take home. Nearly every Catholic in Toormore turned Protestant in that time and their descendants are there today, Protestants and bearing Catholic names. Toormore is known as “the land of soupers” on account of the number of people that turned Protestant for a bowl of soup. There lived one man in Toormore called John Barry and he had seven children. Six of the children died with starvation and he would not go to Fisher for anything for them.

This is the first account we have of Taking the Soup, and the labelling of Toormore as ‘the Land of the Soupers’. The story of the man who would rather let his children starve to death than take the soup is a familiar one. While these John Barrys were held up, in our history lessons, as a model of steadfastness and an exemplar of Catholicism, I remember being horrified that any father would act in this way. Perhaps it’s one of the thousand little cuts that eventually ushered me out of the church.

A cloakroom in a traditional schoolhouse

Annie Donovan collected information from Jeremiah Donovan of Gunpoint who was 97 when he was interviewed. There is a long and detailed description of the conditions and burial practices during the Famine, and it includes this short piece: 

The Catholics were starving with the hunger and Fisher who lived in Toormore at that time gave meal and soup to any Catholics that would go to him. Nearly every person in Toormore went to him for the soup and yellow meal, and they turned Protestants also. They were called “Soupers” and the village of Toormore was called “The village of the Soupers” since and their descendants are still living in Toormoor with Catholic names.

This is a particularly interesting account, since Jeremiah would have lived through some of the events he relates, as a young boy. There is also the same reference as in Kathleen McCarthy’s essay to ‘Protestants with Catholic names’ – a poignant reminder that in Ireland one’s last name is often a pointer to one’s religious affiliation. 

Peter Clarke’s beautiful sketch of the church that Fisher built at Toormore, also called the Altar Church and Teampall na mBocht (Church of the Poor)

A long but anonymous entry from Gloun School (on the slopes of Mount Gabriel – the old school house at the end of this post is associated) goes into great detail about various aspects of the Famine, mainly centring on evil landlords, and contains this:

At the time of the famine, some Catholics turned Protestants. They became perverts to get soup which the Protestants minister gave out. The name of the minister of Toormore was Mr. Fisher.

Some of the “soupers” were William O Donovan and John O Donovan both natives of Toormore. William O Donovan’s daughter, Mrs Coughlan, still lives in Corthna. John Donovan’s grandson is a shop-keeper in Schull, whose name is Joseph Woods. Another man who was a “souper” was Joseph Daly, a native of Toormore. He afterwards became a minister. Before he became a “souper” he was so holy it was said that he could walk upon the waters. He tried to do it once, before a crowd but he sank. He also answered Mass in Ballinashker Chapel barefoot once. His son lives in Schull. Ever since Toormore is sometimes called “the land of the soupers” and the Protestant Church is called ” Teampall na mboct” which means”the Church of the poor”.

I think this piece, more than any other, is illustrative both of the long memory of these events and of the classroom ethos of devout Catholicism in which this child writes – an atmosphere in which it has been normalised to name and shame the ‘Soupers’ and their descendants several generations on. This is divisive sectarianism at its most abhorrent, and it’s just as important to understand this, as it is to chuckle at the funny verses and old folktales that the children also write about.

The old school house at Lissacaha near Gloun

There’s more, but I think this gives you a flavour. Rev William Fisher has left a complex legacy. Some of it springs from his own actions – we haven’t exonerated him from bigotry and over-enthusiastic proselytising (another possible future post, in the light of new information). But it’s also based in the narrow, blinkered, self-righteous Catholicism that encouraged the condemnation of neighbour by neighbour, in the name of religion. It would be good to think we’ve moved beyond that now, in Ireland.

This link will take you to the complete series, Part 1 to Part 7

Mizen Mountains 3 – Letterlicky Cairn, or ‘The Old Bog Road’

I confess I’m stretching things a bit here: the 297m peak in the townland of Letterlicky, West Cork, fits well enough into my definition of mountains – anything above the 200 metre contour line. But is this one on the Mizen? We think of our own village of Ballydehob as being ‘The Gateway to The Mizen’ in the south-east, and it would be logical to have another ‘Gateway’ at Durrus, where the northern coastline of the Mizen meets the Sheeps Head. If you draw a straight line between these two points, then today’s subject misses out. But – there are no straight lines in nature, and this peak is a continuation of a natural ridge line that rises down on the Mizen near Mount Corrin and runs east.

But if you are uncomfortable with my concept of what is or isn’t the Mizen, just go with the subtitle of this post: The Old Bog Road. We found Letterlicky Cairn quite by accident as our exploration set out to follow a trackway that we had often passed, on the high road to the north of Ballybane West. We had no idea where the track would take us, but it’s very well defined, roughly paved and probably quite old. As we journeyed up into the hills, we could see that the track was there to serve peat workings which must have been used for generations. The extent of the peat workings – and the line of the old road serving them – show up well on the aerial map view below.

It was a sunless mid-March day when we set out: the wind was in the east and there was little colour in the landscape. There were, as yet, few signs of spring. We could see the ridge in the distance and, happily, the track appeared to climb towards it. In Ireland, the days of cutting peat for fuel are numbered: commercial operations will cease by 2025. Generations of families in rural areas have historically cut peat by hand and lay claims on the rights to do this. Increased regulation will eventually see this tradition declining along with all other fossil fuel production as carbon neutral ways to produce energy are developed. It seemed significant that the large array of 20 giant wind turbines on the high land to the east was a constant backdrop on our journey along the Old Bog Road.

Tomás Ó Muircheartaigh (1907 – 1967) was an amateur photographer who recorded life in rural Ireland during the first half of the twentieth century. We have used examples of his work in previous posts. These two prints (above) demonstrate the hand-working of peat faces and the transporting of sods from the workings. Our Old Bog Road would have seen similar sights in its heyday.

As we threaded our way through the peat workings, we could see the track carrying on towards the ridge. We had done no prior research into the area we were traversing, but as the way grew higher and higher – and we realised we must be coming to a high point in the landscape – we wondered whether there would be any signs of ancient activity on the mountain top. We could see other high points around us – Mount Kidd to the south and Mount Gabriel to the west – and, beyond, a spectacular distant view over Roaringwater Bay: a place like this would have been considered special, surely, to those who knew it thousands of years ago.

Views from the Old Bog Road: upper – Mount Kidd; middle – Mount Gabriel, and lower – the islands of Roaringwater Bay

As we rounded the last bend in the trackway we could see the summit ahead of us. Initially, we were delighted to see a substantial cairn. But we were surprised by the number of larger, roughly shaped boulders and slabs which were lying around it. Also, there seemed to be a substantial earthen raised platform.

To add to the interest – and the enigma – there were some 21st century monuments on the same hilltop. An inscribed bench and a carved wooden marker which resembled a gravestone, with wording on both sides:

Our subsequent enquiries have given us a little information about Mick Townshend (1951 – 2012). He was well know locally, related to the Townshends of Castletownshend, and lived near Ballybane West. The bench was made by his friend Charlie, and was intended to be installed in Ballydehob: we don’t know why it is now here at the mercy of the elements, but it’s easy to imagine someone finding such a place inspirational, and perhaps asking to be remembered at this spot.

Although it wasn’t the best of days, the view to the north was exceptional, taking in Bantry Bay and the Beara mountains beyond. It’s a place that demands to be returned to. As we prepared for the descent we heard the sound of a small engine, and suddenly there was farmer Florence McCarthy arriving on a quad bike with two collies running behind: they were searching for lost sheep. Good chat was had – although, in deference to the Coronavirus crisis, we all kept the currently regulation distance apart. It felt very unnatural to not shake hands, and we forgot to ask for a photograph, until Florence was just disappearing over the brow of the hill!

Florence

The cairn is a scheduled monument, described prosaically on the Archaeological Survey Database as: Circular area (19.5m N-S; 19m E-W) defined by scatter of large rectangular stones. The Duchas folklore collection proved far more interesting, although I can’t be sure that this entry from Gort Uí Chluana School, Bantry, in 1936 is referring to the same cairn:

Long ago when some of the people from the north of Ballydehob used be carrying their “firkins” of butter to Cork they used go through an old road in the town land of Letter Lickey . . .


On the side of this old road it is supposed that one man killed another with a stone. After that it was the custom with the old people; who ever happened to pass that stone should throw a stone near the spot the stone was dropped at the man or if not something would happen to the person afterwards. Up to the present day there is a cairn of stones to be seen on the side of this old road . . .

Mizen Mountains 2 – Lisheennacreagh

In this series I’m visiting and recording all the ‘mountains’ on the Mizen Peninsula in West Cork. I’m defining a mountain as any summit over 200m above sea level. If I hear you crying out ‘shame!’ – as a mere 200m peak can’t possibly be a mountain – then I can say our country is defined by its undulations, and here in the far west of Ireland all our outcrops, however modest, are dramatic and offer striking views over the landscape, such as the one above which looks north-west across Dunmanus Bay towards the Sheep’s Head, seen from this week’s climb.

Upper – approaching the ridges from the Schull direction, the three peaks of Corrin (left), Lisheennacreagh (centre) and Derrylahard (right) are set out before us. Lower – a closer view: Lisheennacreagh is on the left: its summit is hidden behind the forestry plantation

Last week we explored at the western end of the peninsula, where Knockatassonig – at a height of 204m – only just crept into our ‘mountain’ category. This week – much further to the east – we are more secure, as my chosen destination comes in at 274.6m. It’s actually higher than it looks as neighbouring Mount Corrin (no doubt about that one!) peaks at 288m, and appears much more of a climb from below. Today’s summit is not named on any map, so I’m probably courting controversy by calling it Lisheennacreagh, after the townland in which, by my calculations, the highest point is located. Have a look at the aerial view below:

The pink shading shows the outline of part of the large townland of Coolcoulaghta, the southern boundary of which takes a sinuous course to include the summit of Mount Corrin. Over in the east, however, our high point is exactly on the boundary between the townlands of Coolcoulaghta and Lisheennacreagh – a boundary which is physically defined at that point by a substantial fence, whose course – part of the Sheep’s Head Way Mt Corrin Loop route – we followed all the way up to this summit from the designated car parking area on the Rathuane to Durrus road. After much on-site pondering, I decided to give the summit to Lisheennacreagh, as Coolcoulaghta townland already claims Corrin!

Upper – Finola is heading out for the high ground: the summit is in the far distance, beside the forestry plantation. Lower – looking back from the ascent, high Mizen summits are set out: Corrin is in front of us and Mount Gabriel is in the distance to the left

According to the place name records surveyed in 1841, Lisheennacreagh (Irish Lisín ne Cré) means Little fort of the preys or plunders – I was hoping I might find some traces of ancient earthworks on this summit, but there is nothing visible: buried deep in the inaccessible forest is a scheduled monument, described as a hachured univallate enclosure with a diameter of 22m. In fact it’s not possible to complete this loop walk at all, as the way to the next high point – Derrylahard, 301.7m – passes through heavy forestry, but access has been blocked by storm damage earlier in the year.

Above – autumnal shades of rough grazing continues all the way over the summit: you can go only as far as the next section of forest. Our companions on the walk were just a few ponies

It may seem a fairly featureless walk, but it was well worth the efforts for the superb views in all directions. We were lucky with the day: the mild weather this year has continued right through September and well into October. The mixture of blue skies and scudding clouds emphasises the contours, shadows and natural features, wherever you look.

Rewarding views from the Lisheennacreagh climb: upper – looking across Roaringwater Bay to Baltimore; lower – Cape Clear in the far distance, with another view of Gabriel, the most dominant feature of our Mizen landscape

I found some entries from the Duchas Schools Folklore Collection, for Durrus School. I could not find anything specific to Lisheennacreagh, but I liked this introduction to ‘My Native Townland’ from Brenda MacCarthy dated May 9th 1938:

I live in the townland of Coolcolaughter away out in the country, far from any stuffy unpleasant town or city, and almost two miles from the village of Durrus. My home is at the foot of the mountain in a quiet peaceful valley where my father tills, and sows, and reaps, from dawn to dark year in year out, happy and prosperous, and thankful to God for health and existence . . .

One aspect of Lisheennacreagh is that it is one of the more accessible peaks. There’s a place to park your car (with a fine view looking out to Durrus!), good signage and waymarks. Once the path is repaired beyond this summit, you can go on to Derrylahard (which will be the subject of a future post) and complete the loop by going round Glanlough to Durrus, then back over Corrin – a marathon 17km in all. Choose a good day and you couldn’t hope for a more inspiring hike.

Good accounts of this route and the whole Sheep’s Head system of trails can be found in Amanda and Peter’s book Walking the Sheep’s Head Way – Wildways Press, 2015. Also, have a look at this Living the Sheep’s Head Way post.

The Monster of Red Strand!

Last week we investigated Castlefreke, the tallest High Cross in Ireland,  and the Long Strand. Not far away – and ripe for another day of exploration – is the intriguingly named Red Strand.

Header picture – looking across Red Strand towards Galley Head. Upper – Red Strand beach; lower – red stones are prolific on the beach at Red Strand: it is said the beach ran with blood after the battle between the Barryroe army and John Barry’s army

Tales abound as to how or why that West Cork beach got the name. A good source of such stories is the Schools Folklore Collection – an invaluable resource of memories recorded by local people about their own townlands. Although the collecting project took place in the mid 1930s, the schoolchildren were interviewing members of their own families who might have lived in the same location through several generations, and were probably retelling stories that had in some cases been passed across hundreds of years.

. . . There is an old ruin of a castle in Dundeady which is about eight miles s.w. of Clonakilty. It is about 20 ft high. During the last storm a part of the top was blown off. There are holes in the walls where the guns were kept to shoot from. It was built by an anglo Norman named John Barry. One night they went east to Barryroe and stole cattle from another Norman named “Barry Bán”.

John Barry had a white horse which would not drink water of any well only the well in “Cráig Gaimhne”. Next day he went to the well with his horse and left him grazing in a field near by called “Pairchín Caol” whilst himself fell asleep near the fence.

It was not long until “Barry Bán” and a great army came attacking his castle. The horse ran to the fence where John was sleeping and started to screech into his ear and woke him.

When he saw the Barryroe army attacking his castle he jumped on his horse and off with him over the fields and fences as fast as he could. When he was crossing the “Góilín” he struck the horse with a magic wand. The horse jumped the “Góilín” which is about 15 yds. He struck the horse a second time and the horse fell dead.

The signs of the horses feet are plainly visible on the rock. That day there was a terrible battle fought between the Barryroe army and John Barry’s army and this battle is called the “Battle of the Red Strand”. They fought all the way across the “Red Strand”. They fought and fought across the “Red Strand” and up “Ballira Hill” as far as “Ballira House”. John Barry and his army slew and killed all of Barry Bán’s army nearby. John Barry and his army won the battle that day.

For months after there were bones and pieces of bones throughout the place where the battle was fought . .

Collected from Master Pat Hayes, Donour, by Duchas Schools Folklore Project 1937

Another collected tale also centres around the Lady Well at Dunowen (lower right on the aerial view, above):

. . .There is a well situated in a field belonging  to Michael Feen in the townland of Dunowen not far from the sea coast. It is said that the Blessed Virgin appeared there long ago and was seen by some fishermen when fishing near the coast. She appeared as a big swan and pitched on the edge of the boat. Then she flew eastwards and flew in a circle over the well. Then she knelt down and left the prints of her fingers and knees on the flag, But some 20 years ago  a young boy about 12 years who was blind from birth went to the well with his father, after being taken to the well he left a scream at his father to look at the frog. Then they both thanked god and went home cured . . .

Amanda fully describes and illustrates this well in Holy Wells of Cork and Kerry after her own visit to the area three years ago.

But – what’s this? Marooned on the beach is a strange, dismembered creature… Or, at least, the remains of a creature. I’ve labelled it monster on the aerial view, because I can’t think of a better way to describe it: alien, amorphous, slightly sinuous. It has a mouth, too.

Is it spewing out or sucking in? Will it swallow you or I if we are not careful with the tides? Why is it here, and who made it? Be careful, Robert . . .

It’s enormous! It runs the length of the west end of the beach: you can just make it out in the second picture from the top, lying along the bottom of the cliff face. It’s like a great, marine creature with a fin and blowholes.

But, if that is its mouth facing out to sea, then its tail seems to have exploded. Look at this more detailed aerial view:

This Google Earth image dates from 2009. Ten years later, much of the debris from the exploded part of the monster is disappearing under the shifting sands.

Those huge slabs now scattered over the west end of Red Strand are reinforced with steel girders: whatever has been here in the past was a massive and heavy structure. Is there any record of it? I found only one slightly oblique mention, after searching high and low, written by Noel Baker in the Irish Examiner in February 2014 – following one of the most severe storms ever recorded on the coast of West Cork:

. . . So much of what happens is hidden from plain sight. Take the beautiful beach area of Red Strand near Clonakilty. The recent storms have caused serious damage to counties from Mayo to Wexford and beyond. Sometimes the extent of the damage is obvious, other times not so much. Red Strand, not far from the villages of Rathbarry and Ardfield, has clear evidence of damage. One of the walls alongside the road has been knocked, the sands have been shifted, along with rocks and stones, and the pillar displaying the Red Strand plaque lies knocked on the sand. Local man Cornelius ‘Con’ Scully is a veritable historian of Red Strand. He has photos of the area dating back to the 19th century and knows every nook and cranny.

“The face of the strand has totally changed in a very short time,” he says from his conservatory overlooking the sea.

He remembers back to the 30s when a tunnel, a section of which is still visible to the left of the strand as you look from the road, was laid. “When that was built the high water [mark] was 20 ft further out to sea,” he says. “It’s coming in the whole time” . . .

So there we have it – a tunnel, ‘laid’ in the 1930s.

But we still have an enigma. Why was the tunnel built then? And while the term ‘tunnel’ would adequately describe the remaining long section of the monster, it gives no clue as to its purpose. The ‘exploded’ bit intrigues me the most. From what you can see of the debris today, there must have been some sort of box-sectioned structure running along the higher part of the beach. A number of possibilities spring to mind: a sea-bathing pool, fed from the high tide through the ‘tunnel’? Fish tanks? A sewage system? Settling beds (but for settling what)?

Let’s do a little more detective work by looking back at another aerial photograph from Google Earth. You can see that I have placed the beach – and the monster – in a broader context:

You can trace the snaking line of the monster, starting in the bottom right (ish) and heading up the beach: follow the disintegrated section, which heads for the outlet on to the beach of a stream, which passes under a road bridge. It might be reasonable to assume that whatever passed through the monster’s stomach (the ‘tunnel’) came from that stream.

This picture is looking over the wetlands that are beyond the road running along the top of Red Strand. In the middle distance are ‘old workings’, seen more closely below: these appear to be in the townland of Ganniv Beg.

Whatever those workings might be – or might have been (extraction of sand, minerals?) – any run-off could have been carried into the stream on the right and then spilled out over the beach. This could have been detrimental to the amenity of the beach, and the ‘monster’ might have been constructed to contain and carry the outfall away at high tide. Pure speculation on my part: I’m happy enough to be proved either right or wrong. I would just like my curiosity to be satisfied. So – who has the story? It’s a recent enough construction to be within living memory . . . Hopefully, this post will stir someone to comment: if they do, I will report back.

Through the Yellow Gap

The middle of January: you might expect to be battened down here in West Cork with raging gales or bitter north winds, but Saturday dawned with a clear sky to reveal a most beautiful sun-warmed landscape. We had to be out! We adopted exploring mode and headed for the hills to the north-east of Bantry. OS Map 85 entices with a whole swathe of archaeological sites from megalithic tombs to stone rows and circles, but it was a name that drew us: Barrboy – probably from the original Irish barrabhuidhe – which means ‘yellow summit’. As the highest point of the road in that place (pictured below – about 350m above sea level) is a mountain pass, we have chosen to name our journey Through the Yellow Gap.

The ‘Yellow Gap Road’ runs west to east across the centre of this extract from OS Map 85: we turned on to it from the N71 at Lahadane, just north of Bantry, and dropped back on to the main road to Drimoleague south of Coolkellure

The first part of our route followed the Mealagh river and we were intrigued by the boreens that cross it in places over very fine stone arches: these will have to be explored another time – we were aiming for the hills.

Our day offered us a study of light and landscape, which only the combination of January low sun and shadows can give. If anything the yellowness of the uplands with their rocks, mosses and furze is emphasised by this light: Finola is sure that the colour is due to the fionnán (blonde) grass which is so prevalent during the winter months (header picture). We felt we were in a very remote place, known only to those who spend their lives there, but we were in fact barely a hop and a skip from our own home.

Studies in light and landscape: with a different vista at every turn we were treated to outstanding views typical of rural Ireland

As is so often the case with our off-the-beaten-track excursions, we saw hardly anyone in the whole day, but we did chance to bump into our cycling friend Tim who is in training for yet another Everesting event. The rules are straightforward:

. . . The concept of Everesting is fiendishly simple. Pick any hill, anywhere in the world and ride repeats of it in a single activity until you climb 8,848m – the equivalent height of Mt Everest. Complete the challenge, and you’ll find your name in the Hall of Fame, alongside the best climbers in the world . . .

Tim on his way up the Yellow Gap Road (also known as Nowen Hill). He has to do this climb 56 times in one go to achieve the ‘Everest’. In fact, his aim is to do a ‘Double Everest’ on this hill! This will be his third Everesting event in West Cork… Good luck, Tim

Our travels took us through some very attractive ‘deep’ countryside dotted with cottages and small settlements. Humans have been here for a very long time and have left evidence of their occupation in enigmatic standing stones, alignments, circles and tombs. Some can be seen from the roadside, but many involve explorations across fields or into forests. Always, we are left wanting to know who these early settlers were and why they left us these monuments.

Upper pictures – single standing stones which can be seen from the roadside; lower picture – a five-stone circle and a two-stone alignment on high pasture land: all are ancient and mysterious

As the road threaded its way through the gap and began to descend we seemed to re-enter a less wild landscape, and habitations became more frequent. Eventually we found ourselves in a small community – Coolkelure – with a great sense of history. there was a fine C of I church, a school which had been in use until the 1950s, and an avenue leading to a large house which has had a chequered history, There is an entry in Duchas (the Schools Folklore Collection) about this village:

. . . Coolkelure is situated about four miles and a half west of Dunmanway. There is a holy well at the side of the road but it is covered in now with briars and bushes. Its origin is unknown. There are three steps going into it and there are medals, pieces of cloth and pennies up on a stone over the well. About twenty feet in from it there are rocks nearly a thousand feet high. It is said that a giant lived there in olden times. On the other side of the road is a marsh and the giant is supposed to be buried there. There is a huge stone over his grave. Further on is Coolkelure House. This formerly belonged to Shouldhams, now it is the property of Lady Bandon. The avenue looks beautiful in summer and it is hedged with rhododendrons of every hue . . . (Joan Collins, aged 12 years, from Patrick Collins, aged 60 years – c1934)

Upper – Coollkelure Church; centre – the Lodge at the gateway to Coolkelure House; lower – one of many fine gargoyles on the eccentric Lodge

Well, we didn’t see the holy well, the thousand feet high cliff, the giant or his grave. But we did see rhododendrons – large thickets of them – all the way along many of the roads we travelled. They must look very striking when in bloom in the springtime, but they are an invasive species which threatens the true natural hedgerows. In Coolkelure, also, occurred one of the highlights of our day. We met and got into conversation with Donal and Caitriona – a most hospitable couple who own a small house overlooking the lake. They invited us in, we were given coffee and cakes, and the chat was mighty!

Upper – looking back at our way through the mountains; centre – an example of the many stands of invasive rhododendrons that we encountered and lower – the road becomes tamer as we approach a pastured landscape

We left Coolkelure and headed out of the hills, feeling fulfilled by all the events of the day. Our adventures were not quite over, however, as we encountered Daisy and her owner with their ‘road-car’, delighted that we stopped to photograph them (below). In fact, between us we took at least two hundred photographs on our day out and can only include a modest selection on these pages.